Allusion: sixth (and probably last) in a series

“It is, let me stress,” says Robert Alter, “an unnatural act to compose a poem or write a story.” And now that you’re all set to quibble with him, he goes on: “No one would think of perpetrating such an act without having been exposed to poems or stories that present themselves as objects of emulation or rivalry.” He goes on to instance the sonnet as a form that no one would use to express themselves without knowing what a sonnet is and entering into its continuity.

And, he’s not exactly wrong. I mean, I remember the first sonnet I ever tried to write. Probably best that my old folder of poetry was lost in some move or other. Still, if we were exposed to no forms of literature, we would have to invent them — I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team and you wouldn’t believe the number of times Phil Harding holds up a chip of flint he’s just dug up and says in his adorable West-Country accent, “Now, this don’t look like much, but it’s actually a Neolithic worked scraper — an exciting find!” Creating or maintaining forms of literature may not be “natural” — but they’re as essential a human technology as any other tool developed from antiquity.

But the reason Alter is using this argument is that he is trying to combat the sense of allusion as, again, something accidental or incidental to a text, which is better spoken of as an agentless process of “intertextuality.” “You can ‘allude’ to something,” Alter says, “but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it.” Not to belabor the point (but I totally will because this is my blog and I want to), but this idea that the literary critic does things to books texts, and only writers and naive people let books do things to them, is one that I just can’t accept. Yes, to consider texts critically is not the same thing as to enjoy or write them; but half your critical apparatus goes out the window if you refuse to think of writers as active agents in purposeful engagement with the tradition they have chosen to enter into, or their stories or poems as anything but inert objects to be played with in your current academic environment. I loved my education but I often felt that it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. “Here is a boatload of life-changing texts, but you should feel embarrassed if you ever admit that one had an actual effect on your mental landscape.”

(This is perhaps not fair to my professors in the English department, who no doubt had their hands full developing callow twenty-year-olds into proper critics not hampered by the Dunning-Kruger effect; but even my most sensible mentor, a medievalist with a wry sense of humor, when suggesting we consider how a text might be designed to affect us, used a gingerly dryness as if to insulate himself from the spirit of the age. I took note of that along with everything else in those seminars.)

Anyway, allusion. Alter calls it “an essential modality of the language of literature,” rather than simply a device in the writer’s toolbox. That is: the act of writing a poem or story is an act of engagement with whatever other examples of the form the writer has read and been affected by, and that engagement gives rise to allusion in different forms and modes. Two of Alter’s examples are Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord.” Never once in Faulkner’s book does the biblical story of David and his son Absalom make a direct appearance. But the title, being an allusion to that whole tragedy, informs the story between the covers as a comparably tragic self-destruction of a house. Hopkins, on the other hand, starts his sonnet with a direct quote from Jeremiah, and then strikes from there at the heart of his own frustration and sterility.

These two examples of allusion are comprehensive, and there are also recurrent or fleeting allusions within a text — but to use allusion, rather than just to be colored by whatever you’ve already read when you sit down to write, is to set up and activate a resonance in your reader that enriches their experience. Do it really well and they may not even have to get the reference.

Of course, the writer can make allusions for their own private enjoyment as well. A casual reader of Ryswyck may note by the style that I’ve obviously read a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold and Dorothy L. Sayers, and if I wanted to conceal their influence I probably wouldn’t be able to. A person familiar with the Major Arcana would likely recognize the images of at least two characters, which I worked into the design. But I’d be surprised and pleased if any reader caught the several references to the Gospel of John in the text — I put those in the design for my own pleasure, and to remind myself of what I like best about that gospel, the telling of a story from beginning to end in such a way that time itself becomes layered and laminated, like an exploded diagram of a theological reality.

Nobody needs to get that in order to enjoy my tale. But it’s part of the “high fun” of writing to make full use of all the nodes and meridians of meaningful stories in your reach. To think that a story should be full and resplendent with its own sui generis meaning, free of all dependence on other texts, is — well — a bit wanky, and a modern aberration. Some Stone Age person knapped a flint scraper for Phil Harding to find; I went to the store and bought a stainless steel knife. Guess who did more heavy lifting for the human race?

Now watch me dice this onion and cry some tears of gratitude.

This has been a not-so-liveblog responsive reading of the chapters in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Brought to you by the letters Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and by the number Q. Tune in next time for…whatever I decide to do a series on next.

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